Monday, July 15, 2013

Deep Well: Church (no, but really...)

(A brief caveat. I really like a lot of the worship that I experience each week. But this post is about how I don't think whether I like it or not is the key question.)

Church is sort of a much maligned thing these days.

I'm not just talking about the fastest growing religious affiliation in the U.S. being people who mark "none" under religious affiliation. (This has led lots of people in church growth circles to talk a lot about reaching out to the "nones," a phrase which emergentyish author Christian Piatt--in an article I don't entirely agree with but is still worth reading--points out is quite problematic. One pastor in this area has actually started referring to this group as "the unheard" because their voices, including their valid critiques of the church, are often ignored by the church.)

I'm not just talking about people who are "spiritual but not religious," who want a spiritual life of some kind (whatever that means or looks like) but distance themselves from organized religion.

I'm talking about people who still identify as Christian, who might even attend church regularly, who are pretty critical of Sunday morning (or evening, or whenever) services.

And why not? There's plenty to critique. If it's not boring, it's cheesy. If it's not a small dying church, it's a massive impersonal one. If it's too enthusiastic it feels cultish; if it's not we tune out. The hymns are dry, or they're the theological equivalent of cotton candy. There can be hypocrisy and politics and sometimes bigotry and outright meanness. There is certainly plenty of division along lines of race and socioeconomic status and political belief. There is certainly plenty of stuff that makes people wonder what church has to do with this Jesus guy, anyway. There's all sorts of things wrong with church.

"Why go to church," people wonder, "when I feel more of God watching a sunset or hiking in the woods? Why go to church when I don't have a spiritual experience there?"

But I need church, and here is why.

I, too, have often experienced God while marveling at the magnificence of nature, the stunning beauty of God's creation. I, too, have often experienced God while serving outside of the walls of a church building.

But every Sunday, or just about every Sunday, I sit down (and stand up and sit down again) in a group of people that I did not choose to gather around me, and we name the presence of God in our lives together.

I do not like all of the people I am in church with. I would not naturally choose to go on a hike in the woods with many of them.

And here I am, singing songs and praying prayers and passing the peace, sometimes with strangers.

Here I am, trying to learn about Jesus, in exactly the sort of messed up, flawed way that any of us can ever hope to do so.

The sunsets and the hikes in the woods are great for my own, individualized spiritual experience. But my own spiritual experience can happen just as easily without you, whoever you are, thank you very much. And if it does include you, it's probably because we share a common interest. We're part of the same club. As much as church gets a bad rap for turning into a social club, the rest of our lives are divided up neatly into clubs, too.

I need church, because it reminds me that God is present in our common life together, and not just when we "feel" it to be so. Now, don't get me wrong. Feeling is important. I'm a Methodist, which means I place importance in the experience of God's presence. (The Methodists on the frontier used to be referred to as "those shouting Methodists." My, how times have changed). But it also means I value reason, and tradition, and try to anchor that in scripture, and these things are not based on what I feel or who I like.

So yes, there are many problems with church. Yes, we can do more to create authentic worship, to foster a space of vulnerability and accountability and transformation. Yes, we absolutely have work to do to break down boundaries and overcome division.  But I think all of that is worth it, because there are just so few places in our lives where we come together in this way, not necessarily based on a common interest but instead on a common desire to be open to the workings of the Spirit in the midst of unlikely community.

Even on Sundays when I don't "feel" it--when I'm distracted during the sermon and I don't like the hymns and I sort of wish I had just slept in--I believe that the Spirit is at work, drawing us to that deep well that can sustain us and make us whole.

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